Messi’s MLS debut, USWNT’s World Cup opener show how far sport has come

Lionel Messi is in Miami. The United States women’s national team is in New Zealand.

On Friday, each will make its debut — Messi playing for an MLS team; the USWNT at the Women’s World Cup, seeking its third consecutive crown.

That’s one fun night for soccer in America.

Ideally, they’d be packaged together, a nationally televised doubleheader that could feed off each other’s fans and draw in casual observers.

Instead, Messi is on Apple TV at 8 p.m. ET and the American women on Fox at 9. The overlap and streaming/linear issues make it a bit clumsy, especially since Fox has a deal with MLS to simulcast 34 games a year that will already be on Apple.

Messi at 6:30, the USWNT at 9 would have been best.

It didn’t get worked out though and while that’s a “problem” it’s worth remembering that in the long (but steady and occasionally explosive) growth of soccer in America, that is one excellent “problem” to have.

Millions of fans would like to watch two big soccer events and are slightly inconvenienced with the broadcasting schedule?

If anything, Friday is a reminder not just of soccer’s increased presence but its staying power.

Messi’s arrival in the MLS has been compared to Pelé joining the New York Cosmos in 1975 and David Beckham playing for the LA Galaxy in 2007.

Lionel Messi holds his new Inter Miami team jersey as he poses with team co-owners Jorge Mas, left, Jose Mas, second right, and David Beckham, right, at an event to present him to fans on July 16. (AP)

Those are ridiculous comparisons. This is an entirely different world. Pelé was needed to prove that soccer fans even existed. Beckham needed to make Americans know the MLS existed.

Part of Beckham’s job when he joined the league was publicity. He not only stood for nearly six hours of interviews during his introductory news conference, he routinely made the rounds on everything from late-night talk shows to local sports radio. He was a promotional tool as much as a player.

Messi just needs to be Messi. The fans, the media, the attention … it’s built in.

Messi’s introductory speech lasted just over two minutes. He won’t do media before Friday’s game and who really knows what he’ll do — or how long he’ll do it — after the game. He’s famously quiet. That won’t change.

His job is to be a star. At 36, he may not be at his Barcelona peak, but he was named FIFA’s Best Men’s Player in 2022, the same year he led Argentina to the World Cup title. In the final against France, he scored twice before delivering a third time in penalty kicks. Some 1.5 billion people are believed to have watched globally, including 26 million in America.

Now he’s coming to a city near you as the best player in MLS.

Could having his games on Fox help with casual viewers? Absolutely, but Apple is paying MLS $250 million a year to broadcast every game. Streaming can limit fan growth, but a price like that was simply inconceivable when Beckham arrived 16 seasons ago.

Or put it this way. In 2007, Toronto joined MLS courtesy of a $10 million expansion fee. This spring, investors in San Diego paid $500 million to join the league.

As for the American women, the stakes and expectations on the pitch are as great as ever — win the World Cup or bust.

Off of it though, it’s far more stable. This is no longer 1999, when Mia Hamm and company were trying to prove that women could even play this sport, let alone that it was a viable entertainment option. Back then, selling out the Meadowlands or the Rose Bowl was proof of concept. The fact anyone tuned in was celebrated.

No one doubts the team anymore.

The NWSL still has a long way to go and women’s sports still commonly fall behind men’s in terms of popularity and exposure, but that shouldn’t be the standard. U.S. Soccer has committed not just to equal pay, but more notably, equal investment in support staff and training.

If anything this World Cup is about the team transitioning from aging stars such as Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe to younger ones such as Trinity Rodman and Sophia Smith. Win or lose, it will continue to have millions of fans.

The fact that soccer’s big night — Messi in America! The USWNT in the World Cup! — doesn’t feel like a big night is a milestone worth noting. Soccer doesn’t need gimmicks anymore. It doesn’t need one-off events to get attention.

It’s here. And it isn’t going anywhere.

So sit back and enjoy the show(s).


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